The Cultural Arts as Economic Development: What Baltimore Can Learn From Charlotte, N.C.

July 1997 / Abell Reports / Arts, Community Development

Can Baltimore position its considerable cultural arts assets to better serve the community? Is Charlotte’s effort a model?

In June of 1996, in response to the drastic cuts in federal funding for the arts, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) initiated a nationwide series of regional and community forums called American Canvas. The purpose of the six forums was to determine the value of the arts and ways to strengthen the infrastructure of the nation’s arts communities. One of the forum sites was Charlotte, North Carolina where the focus was “What is the Role of the Arts in Community Economic Development and Growth.”

Charlotte has received national attention in recent years for its success in economic development and for the quality of life it offers. It ranks nationally as a banking center, has been voted America’s most livable city by the National Conference of Mayors, and has been selected by Newsweek magazine as one of the best places in the U.S. to live.

The arts in Charlotte play an integral role in economic development strategies. Indeed, the video produced for the NEA forum by the Charlotte Arts and Sciences Council (CASC) points to Charlotte’s four Cultural Action Plans (CAPs) as crucial to the City’s long-term economic health, and to its focus on tourism as the number one industry of the future.

Other cities are testing the potential of their cultural institutions to contribute to economic development and tourism. The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s 1996 Cezanne retrospective brought $86.5 million into  Philadelphia’s economy. Atlanta reports on the effect of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games as a missed opportunity for the arts but one which has “created awareness and expectation . . . that Atlanta is a city capable of competing on a broader stage in many arenas, including that of culture and the arts.” The Cleveland Foundation published a report in October of 1996 by the Civic Study Commission On the Performing Arts, which focuses on how the performing arts serve Cleveland and what can be done to create conditions to insure their future. Providence has created an arts and entertainment empowerment zone to spur renewal. Newark has built a performing arts center to draw visitors downtown.

Baltimore to date has not put forward a plan to capitalize on its cultural assets. There are indications, however, that Mayor Schmoke takes seriously the potential of Baltimore’s museums to play a role in the future. In Museum News for March/April 1997 Mayor Schmoke is quoted: “Museums have played an important role in the past and we’re hoping that they play an increasingly important role in the future . . .They enrich the quality of life, they provide jobs, they are really an economic engine.” Other community leaders in Baltimore have also expressed the need to explore ways to build on the City’s cultural resources.

As preparation for assessing the importance of Baltimore’s arts and science organizations to the City’s future, it will be useful to measure Baltimore and its cultural institutions against a city such as Charlotte—a city recognized nationally for making the arts integral to economic development. The purpose of the comparison study is to determine what similarities exist between the cities and what, if anything, Baltimore might learn from Charlotte.